Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Gem from a Neighbor to the North

During our recent family road trip out east, we enjoyed a quick trip up to Toronto for a Blue Jays game and a trip up the CN Tower. I also found this article in the July 23 Globe and Mail. It's by Dr. Christopher S. Morrissey, an Assistant Professor of Latin Philosophy at Redeemer Pacific College in British Columbia. I believe we've had a post on the recent Vatican document, but I found this piece very interesting.


When the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith speaks, people listen, even if they don't always understand.

And what does the Vatican teach today about its Christian brethren, the Protestant churches? Is Vatican policy setting back dialogue, as recent press reports suggested, by casting aspersions on the non-Catholic churches? Is it pigheadedly clinging to unchanged doctrine?

Neither. Its new doctrinal document actually advanced relations between Christians hen the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued it earlier this month. But headlines portrayed the document as a name-calling setback: "Non-Catholic churches 'wounded,' Vatican says" (The Globe and Mail) and "Other Christian churches are 'wounded,' Vatican says; Protestants worried" (National Post).

Yet the official Latin document didn't speak of "ecclesial Communities originating from the Reformation" and "the wound which they suffer." That quotation came only from the less precise accompanying English commentary.

Significantly, the official Latin version refers to the defectus which they suffer, and defectus is not Latin for "wound." That would be vulnus, a word the Vatican chose not to employ. The Latin text is the official text for a reason. The Latin term defectus has a unique precision that no single English term can capture.

True, we get the English word "defect" from it. But this signification of "deficiency" does not capture the Latin term's full meaning, which is twofold. In the Latin, the one term (from the verb deficio) connotes both a "revolt" and a "lack." The Latin dictionary describes the verbal action: "to do less than one might; to fail."

Remember this is Latin, so call to mind a Roman army in order to grasp the concrete, dual meaning implied here. If a portion of the army "rebels," then the portion thereby becomes "weakened" or "enfeebled" because it has cut itself off from the whole.

Hence my preferred translation of defectus is "self-wounding." This best translates, I think, the attenuated state brought about by anyone's "rebellion" from a healthy unity. Cut off a limb; get the idea?

Now compare the Latin text of Communionis notio, the CDF document from 1992, issued by Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) under Pope John Paul II, with last week's 2007 CDF document.

The correspondences are so close that, if a student submitted such Latin work, I would say it was plagiarized. But when the Vatican is plagiarizing itself, it intends to reiterate an unchanged teaching.

Except, look at what did change in the Latin last week. Many phrases are highly similar, but now the term defectus occurs exactly where vulnus had been used before! In other words, the real story here is that the Vatican plagiarized itself in order to clarify what the term "wounded"- an old news story from 1992- really means.

That clarification, in my opinion, gently and deftly steers the discussion away from the topic of vulnus ("who wounded whom") to the topic of defectus ("self-wounding"). Because lack of unity is consequent upon all Christians "failing" and "doing less than they might."

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